San José is the capital of Costa Rica and its metropolitan hub, and there's no shortage of dining options to choose from. Skip the guesswork with this list of the best places to eat, running the gamut from fine dining in luxury hotels and farm-to-table eateries like Al Mercat in the city center to family-owned spots where you can chow down on 'gallo pinto'—Costa Rica's national dish.

Al Mercat

Only the freshest ingredients at Al Mercat

Located just northeast of San José's city center, Al Mercat is an intimate eatery with a covered patio dining area whose vine-draped walls let you know you're in the tropics. The brainchild of local chef Jose Gonazález, the restaurant serves a menu that changes daily depending on whatever's fresh at the market. In fact, the name "Al Mercat" is a play on al mercado, the Tico tradition of shopping for the freshest produce at the local markets.

There's a lot here that will tantalize the taste buds, with past menu items including tostadas, ceviche marinated in orange and lime juice, crispy chicharrón of pork, chicken salad with turmeric, pork ribs marinated in tamarind sauce, and New York strip steaks right off the grill. But you don't have to be a carnivore to eat here—vegeterians can opt for creative plates like the sweet potato gnocchi with grilled vegetables or the smoked cheese sandwich with crimini mushrooms and chimichurri sauce.

Av. 13, San José 

Café de los Deseos

Chifrijo is one of the local dishes at Cafe de los Deseos

"Cafe of wishes" is what the name of this eatery translates to, and its funky art-gallery vibe will definitely make you feel like you're in dreamland. Situated in an old house in the city center, near the zoo and botanical garden, the walls of Café de los Deseos are adorned with works from local artists, the tables are handpainted, and the floor design is like a colorful optical illusion. All this artistic expressionism only enhances the relaxed vibe of the restaurant. 

The fare here is basically pub grub/cantina style, so you can expect options along the lines of burgers, pizzas, tacos, wraps, plus some traditional Costa Rican staples. One such local offering is chifrijo, a dish of rice mixed with beans, meat, and tomatoes. Be sure to wash it all down with a cold beer or sangria.

Calle 15 at Avenida 11, San José

Chelles

A typical Costa Rican casado

This casual institution is over 100 years old, and it doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is: a solid local joint. Folks come to Chelles for the typical Costa Rican fare like casados: set meals that often include beans, rice, salad, fried plantains, and your choice of protein (usually chicken, pork, or steak).

Chelles does other Tico comfort-food staples too, like arroz con pollo (rice mixed with chicken), sopa de mariscos (seafood soup), and more. They even have tasty pressed sandwiches and desserts like chocolate cake and banana Banoffee pie. The restaurant is on a busy corner right smack in the city center, so if you want to come for just a beer and some people watching, that’s fine, too.

Calle 9, San José

Furca

Furca is famous for steak

The farm-to-table craze has come to Costa Rica, and it’s the perfect country for it. This is a nation with a long legacy of cattle raising, and we all know about its abundance of fresh exotic fruits and vegetables. Furca takes this to heart, serving only locally sourced, sustainable ingredients with a particular focus on house-aged steaks from local livestock.

There’s also plenty of fresh seafood on offer, including grilled octopus, shrimp salad, fresh salmon, and the list goes on. The ambiance hits all the right notes too. The lighting is warm and the décor minimal, and you’ll enjoy your meal in ruby red vinyl chairs sitting on sleek and shiny hardwood floors. Both the food and service are impeccable, which makes it yet another addition on the list great for a night out to kick off that romantic beach getaway, or even as a last meal with that special someone before returning home.

Calle 76, San José

Kalú

The grilled scallops and asparagus in beurre blanc, at Kalú

"Kalú" is an indigenous word of the Kuna Yala that means "meeting place." Beyond merely being a restaurant where folks can indeed meet one another, Kalú is also a cultural meeting place, as it combines local culinary influences with those of classic European cuisine. This makes sense, considering that the chef, Camille Ratton, is of both French and Costa Rican heritage.

The restaurant opened its doors in 2007 and has since changed locations as well as decor, but it's always strived to combine the best of classic dishes from two different worlds. This is evidenced in menu items like their steak frites, various risottos, osso buco, and grilled scallops. Their wine list is heavy on varietals from Argentina and Chile, and they even serve artisanal ciders. Plus, there's an attached coffee bar that serves only top quality Costa Rican beans. 

Calle 31, San José

Le Chandelier

A lovely bit of ratatouille at Le Chandelier

With a name like Le Chandelier, you can bet that you’re in for some haute cuisine. Located in the east of the city, this restaurant is an institution that has been popular with locals since its opening in 1985. It does refined and familiar French classics, presented unironically using only the freshest ingredients.

That said, the plating here is as creative as any other high-end eatery in San José. Popular dishes include old warhorses like pea soup with smoked ham and loin of beef medallions with green pepper. They also do solid dishes utilizing Costa Rican ingredients like corvina (a type of white fish) in almond crust and scallops in tropical salsa. For dessert, go for the Swiss chocolate mousse.  Le Chandelier is a big space with various dining rooms (some to accommodate banquets and larger events), and each has a different theme.

ICE San Pedro,  San José

Mantras Café and Tea House

Enjoy a chai tea at Mantras Café

This is another option just east of the city center, but what separates Mantras Café from other entries on this list is that it is entirely vegetarian. Sure, you can go for the veggie burger here and you won't be disappointed, but the chefs take inspiration from all over the world. They serve an extensive, globetrotting menu that includes pad thai, sushi, curries, falafel, lasagna, nachos, and much more.

Also, the ingredients they use are totally organic, with some of their greens coming from an independently owned local hydroponic farm. Even the coconut milk and the peanut butter they use in the sauces are organic. Of course, here you can find vegan and gluten-free menu items as well. Because it's also a tea house, Mantras Café serves an extensive list of teas and coffees (including chai tea), as well as fresh-fruit smoothies. This is probably the best vegetarian restaurant in San José.

200 Norte del Farolito, San Pedro, San José

Olio

Enjoy some tapas at Olio

If you're looking for a place to cut loose while enjoying dinner out, then head to Olio, just east of the city center. Everything from the dark, intimate atmosphere to the colorful lighting exudes passion and fun. Then there's the food. We recommend ordering a sangria or two right off the bat, before ordering from the diverse array of tasty tapas. These include stuffed mushrooms, goat-cheese croquettes, calamari, grilled octopus, garlic shrimp, and more. 

Olio fancies itself a gastropub, so you can expect live music on Thursday nights. It's a good date spot, but be advised that the location is right next to train tracks—you'll likely hear the rumbling of locomotives going by.

Calle 33, San José

Park Café

The quail in crispy pastry at Park Café

Landing squarely in the fine-dining category, this restaurant is the very definition of “upscale” (it also doubles as an antique shop). Park Café has been doing European-inspired dishes with Latin-American and eastern twists for some time. And even though you’ll recognize most of the ingredients, the beautifully presented and highly creative plating is like something from another world. There’s a lot to recommend here, from the quail in crispy pastry to the paella-stuffed calamari to the plums stuffed with quails egg in curry sauce with basmati rice.

Calle 48, San José

Restaurante Grano de Oro

The patio at Grano de Oro

Located in the drop-dead gorgeous Hotel Grano de Oro, this is another can't-miss dining option. The menu at the Grano de Oro Restaurant is a celebration of French-Mediterranean cuisine that utilizes local Costa Rican ingredients and tropical produce. 

For lunch, their French chef serves up refined standards like frisée salad, beef tartare, and salmon Nicoise, while the dinner menu is heavy on fresh pasta and delectable plates like beef tenderloin with pistachio crust, New Zealand lamb chops, and roast duck breast with caramelized figs. Their award-winning wine cellar features 2,000 bottles that have been hand-paired with the menu. As a side note, the elegant patio is the perfect spot to dine while enjoying the fresh scents of the hotel's bromeliad-filled garden.

Calle 30, Av 2, San José Province, San José

Soda Yogui’s

Soda Yogui's serves Costa Rica's national dish: gallo pinto

To truly get a sense of Costa Rican cuisine and culture, you need to eat at a soda like Yogui's. Sodas are typically small, family-run eateries that serve traditional, hearty fare for working-class locals. Sure, the décor of this strip-mall restaurant isn’t going to knock your socks off, but that’s hardly the point. You come for the quality. The food here is fresh, the service is friendly, and they do breakfast all day. Pull up a stool at the long bar and try the traditional Costa Rican morning meal of gallo pinto, a dish of black beans mixed with rice and served with eggs and bread.

Av 2, San José

Ready to go on your own tasting tour through Costa Rica? Browse these great itineraries for inspiration—and here's more info on what to do and see in San José.